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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Death of a Salesman (fortyfivedownstairs) - 180 minutes plus interval

Arthur Miller’s stunning, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning 1949 play Death of a Salesman has lost none of its clout all these years later.

The three-hour production by Hearth Theatre at fortyfivedownstairs explores themes of change, isolation, depression, self-worth, family values, truth and financial distress.

The action takes place in 1940s New York.

Photos by Ben Andrews

Willy Loman (Paul English) started out as a salesman when still in his mid-teens and now at age 63 he remains on the road, covering thousands upon thousands of kilometres.

His territory is New England.

He is tired and washed up.

Although he was once the pride of his company, he now doesn’t make enough to cover the household expenses.

In fact, he has to turn to his neighbour Charley (Tas Dimitrakakis) for regular handouts, so that he can pay his way.

Willy’s wife Linda (Margot Knight) loves him dearly, despite his grumbles and worries.

Of late, Willy’s mind also appears to be going.

Linda urges Willy to ask his boss, Howard Wagner (Anthony O’Connell) – who took over the business from his father, Frank – for an office job.

The couple has two adult children who are temporarily staying with them, sharing their old room.

Willy bemoans the fact that the elder, Biff (Charlie Cousins), has made nothing of himself.

He is but a farm hand earning little money, when his destiny could have been so different.

As a teenager, Biff was a football star, destined for a college scholarship until he flunked maths.

Then, his life started to unravel and he fell out with Willy, whom he still loves, but whenever they talk they end up locking horns.

Willy’s younger son “Happy” (Ross Dwyer) is a womaniser and a big talker, who has his eyes on a more prestigious job than he currently has.

Truth be told, despite pumping himself up, he is an assistant to the assistant buyer of a local store.

Happy would love to go into business with his brother and they come up with an idea, with Biff determined to approach a former employer for funding.

As Willy’s mental state continues to deteriorate, he has increasing visions of his older brother Ben, who made a fortune in Africa by the time he was 21.

Friendless and losing all hope, Willy’s final blow comes at the hands of his boss, while the reception Biff receives from his former employer is equally devastating.

Hearth Theatre’s portrayal of broken dreams and spirit is every bit as powerful as the story suggests it should be.

It remains heartbreaking to watch.

Thematically, the subject matter is as relevant today as when it was first realised.

The shifts in society since the play’s inception have been significant.

Disconnectedness and health and well-being are certainly more spoken about, but it’s arguable how much progress has actually been made. Many continue to slip through the cracks.

Paul English does a fine job laying bare Willy’s vulnerabilities. You very quickly gain the impression that he is a mere shadow of his former self.

Meanwhile, Biff is a chip off the old block. Charlie Cousins readily channels his character’s crash and burn persona. Perpetually out to please his father, Biff inevitably fails.

Margot Knight is impressive as Linda, Willy’s indefatigable and empathetic wife and greatest defender.

Ross Dwyer makes a good fist of it, too, as the over exuberant Happy, a man prone to hyperbole.

Backed by a strong supporting cast, Death of a Salesman remains a searing portrait of struggle.

I greatly appreciated the creativity involved in the play’s staging. Set and costume designer Adrienne Chisholm was responsible.

Brown boxes of various sizes are stacked liberally around the expanse of the theatre.

Dried out leaves are scattered on the wooden floorboards.

An old brass bed, two wooden single beds, five weathered dark brown chairs and a small table that has seen better days complete the picture.

Mind you, I should add that the appearance of a reel-to-reel tape recorder – as a prop – brought a smile to my face.

Importantly, director Christopher Tomkinson has given the actors free reign to move about the stage as the mood takes them.

There aren’t set positions. The actors can respond to what they see and feel around them at each performance.

Let me finish by saying what I saw and felt was well worth seeing.

Death of a Salesman is playing at fortyfivedownstairs until 27th February, 2022.


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